The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Problems with Non-Fiction Today

I’m not exactly old yet, but I’m no spring chicken, and as a child and teenager in the 70s and 80s I read a lot of books from previous generations.  I still read a lot, though not so much as when I was younger, and the non-fiction has changed.  This isn’t surprising as writing changes with the times, but I think it’s generally become worse.

Oh, writing is smoother, as a rule. It’s Gladwellian.  Contemporary non-fiction has lots of anecdotes and fuzzy feelings, lots of profiles of the people affected by whatever they’re writing about, lots of little details about the key thinkers.  Many would argue contemporary books are better written, because they connect with people by making the stories personal.

I suppose they do.  But they’re also disconnected.  Most books today should have been 10,000 word magazine articles.  There’s not enough meat: there’s fluff and detail on one issue or a small cluster of issues, but there is very little wide-ranging intellectual context.  You can read a book on how important it is that everyone share in economic gains, or how people are risk averse, or how smart crowds are (or aren’t), or how people can’t think properly in time and how bad most people are at statistical thinking, or you read a book about how just a few resources can make a difference in history, and it’s all very well, but there’s no context.  There is no world view.

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As a result, these books become factoids.  Because they either don’t sit a coherent world-model, or because they don’t state their world model, most people can’t really integrate these books usefully, because they don’t read enough books, they don’t spend enough time thinking or talking about what they read, and they don’t understand the premises underlying the world view.  They have no model of cooperation or competition and how the two go back and forth, they don’t understand generational trends, they don’t understand the rhythms of technology; they understand neither conditioning (nurture) nor nature, nor how those two interact.

This isn’t people’s fault.  This stuff isn’t taught in school, and it’s barely taught in university; when it is taught in university it’s rarely taught well or with proper attention to the assumptions of models.  The disciplines which teach this stuff best, only do so rarely and are either despised (sociology), ignored (anthropology) or the discipline itself despises those who do integrative work (history).

People don’t know how to think.  Despite all the talk about thinking, it isn’t taught because it’s hard to teach, and because employers don’t actually want employees who know how to think on their own (such people are endlessly annoying as subordinates, and executives are chosen largely for knife-fighting skills, not strategic ability, despite what the business books would have you believe).

Specialization can be useful, but before you go narrow, with rare exceptions, you need to go broad. You need context and a model, a schema into which to fit the facts.  Modern non-fiction generally wastes half of its words on verbiage—creating an “emotional connection” without actually providing that context.  As a result, in order to form a world view, one has to read a vast swath of books, throw out what isn’t useful and put what’s left into a coherent worldview, and do it largely on one’s own.

As a result you are far better off reading books like Jane Jacobs “Economy of Cities” and “Cities and the Wealth of Nations” or anything written by Max Weber, than almost anything published by younger authors in recent years.  Nineteenth and early twentieth century authors writing on Empire speak more eloquently to strategy and growth than our current “international affairs experts”, and Keynes, for all he is abused, is far more insightful than most of those who either slag him or claim to follow him while doing what he would not have done.

Of course there is a place for books on narrow subjects, a place for non-fiction books which tug the heartstrings. But the true non-fiction classics, the books that are read and re-read, right or wrong, are generally books with great grasp and reach (The Prince, the Protestant Ethic, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life).  And those books give people enough to work with, enough to understand, and speak to something large in society, something that matters: how to rule, how progress occurs, what religion is.  You may reject them, as many have rejected all three of those (or Jacobs’ work), but they had reach and grasp and ambition and they spoke large about how the world works.

A book which tries to explain any part of the world must both have integrative ability and context.  If it is not clear what is not explained by your theses, then your theses have failed.  Everything cannot be explained by any one theory, whether that be self-interest (Darwinian reproduction or Economic utility) or more ancient (but still strong) theories about the will of God.

Let magazine articles be magazine articles.  Let books be books, and let them try to shine light on enough of the world to matter.


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  1. Qqvl

    It seems to me that the trend has been basically downward since the Belle Époque, really.

    The works published 1950s-1970s could be thoughtful but were already starting to tend toward muddled.

    1980s-1990s were about equal parts thoughtful and muddled.

    2000s-now mostly just muddled.

  2. guest

    Not just writing either. I was in an office where one of the workers was listening or watching a program on her i phone (probably from you tube or a website), and it was about permaculture and all that stuff. And so freaking much of it was full of dramatic or inspiring music, lots of sound bits (drink a shot every time you hear the word sustainable), lots of feel good crap, and very little actual new information. And then some of the information was clearly wrong, or at least unfounded in fact (“as the American Indians have done for hundreds of thousands of year”, although that long ago, most of the human race was probably in Africa, at least as far as we know today). Basically it was just an info-mercial that wasn’t selling a particular product, just so warm fuzzies about hope and change.
    Just the facts, ma’am, please. Or at least an 80% fact and analysis content, if that is possible.

  3. Adam Eran

    Ordinarily I’d agree with you, but I’ve recently read Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber’s sociology (anthropology, paleontology) of obligation. It’s as fine and comprehensive as a book can be. Even the footnotes are excellent. Unfortunately, it does contain one clankingly obvious mistake: Graeber suggests that Apple’s engineers collaborated on their laptops to invent the personal computer (ouch!).

    Anyway, not all such books are failures, but you’re right in saying the vast majority do not measure up to their magazine article predecessors (I’d say Naomi Klein’s “Baghdad Year Zero” is more to the point than The Shock Doctrine, which elaborates, for one example. )

  4. I like books with complexity and broad world-views too. My favorites were written by Thorstein Veblen—most especially “The Theory of the Leisure Class” and the “Instinct of Workmanship.” Both available free online.

    As for Weber and the “Protestant Ethic,” I thought it very sloppy. For example, he uses Franklin as an example of the Calvinist work ethic. Franklin did in fact grow up in Puritan (Calvinist) Boston but utterly hated it and did not blossom until he escaped to Quaker Philadelphia. Lack of attention to this sort of important details make Weber’s conclusions highly suspect.

    If I were to hand out grades, Veblen always gets an A while Weber gets a C-.

  5. RJMeyers

    YES. This gets directly to something I’ve observed too–the signal to noise ratios for most written works feel like they’re getting quite low. Lots of books stuffed with filler, lots of articles that could have shrunk to half their size and not lost anything. I hate non-fiction that purports to talk about ideas but spends dozens of pages telling me what the people with those ideas look like, or where they like to eat.

    I’ve noticed this signal to noise problem in academic papers too. Older papers, written in the first half of the 20th century, are often written in a much more understandable form, almost like a conversation. They give context and tend to get to the point. More recent papers, especially toward the end of the 20th, spend huge amounts of time building up citations but often neglect a fuller discussion of context. They seem more concerned with following the formula and less concerned with conveying necessary information. If you’re familiar with the literature then you can still follow these newer papers, but each one actually has less information and less background than older papers used to.

  6. RJMeyers

    Ah, one other note: I think there’s something like this happening in many movies too, especially Hollywood blockbusters. The editing and pacing is all wrong and the plot holes are so large you could drive a fleet of semi trucks through. I know there have always been problems like this, but I’ve been noticing more and more fundamental errors and inconsistencies in major Hollywood films recently. Again, I think there’s become more of a focus on form (and re-creating old forms) than on content.

  7. Ian Welsh

    One of the problems with academic papers is the goddam lit review. It’s getting longer and longer. It’s a big back scratching club. Just get to your results already.

  8. Ian Welsh

    Ah, but sociology/anthro is one of the holdouts that still occasionally produces fine works Adam. 🙂

  9. Qqvl

    On the issue of style, The Confluence linked a press release about Pennsylvania’s governor visiting “Downingtown STEM Academy High School”.

    That’s really the name of a real high school.

    It just kinda screams out “we employ more management consultants than we do teachers”, doesn’t it?

  10. Qqvl

    The Ascent of Man ended with a warning that Western civilization would fail if it couldn’t employ the scientific understanding of consciousness toward the creation of a new overarching worldview. Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach was an excellent first effort at striking out in that direction. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and sank like a rock.

    Three decades later, the odious David Brooks wrote the execrable The Social Animal, which appears to have been modern establishment America’s best effort at heading off Bronowski’s prophecy. I somehow doubt the Fates were terribly impressed.

  11. I respectfully disagree. Guns Germs and Steel and Diamonds other books are excellent. (You might also read Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 and Plagues and People which IMHO started the discussion)

    N.A. M. Rodger has a wonderful trilogy on the British Navy.

    The Box is a great summary of containerized shipping.

    The Innovators covers computers from Lovelace on.

    Crucible of War is a wonderful history of the “French and Indian” war written as a prequel to the American Revolution.

    The Reactionary Mind is short but gives a better understanding of Conservatism than any other source I know.

    There are many good books covering broad topics being written today.

  12. peter c


    Have you read Taleb’s Incerto series? (Black Swan, Antifragile, etc) It’s not up there with Jacobs by any means, but it is a rigorous, integrative piece of work, and he has a clear world view. Now, is not a world view I totally agree with, but I found it enjoyable and enlightening.

    Exhibits A and B in how college don’t teach students how to think are demonstrated by business/econ departments producing rigidly ideological economic libertarians, and humanities departments producing even more rigidly ideological critical theorists. Anyone with an once of thinking ability can see through those with minimal thought, but people without that capacity can feel like critical thinkers by employing them and reaping the social rewards.

  13. Adorno

    Trivial example, but on a whim I borrowed a friend’s copy of Roger Morris’s biography of Nixon. It covers 19th c. California water politics and gives a brief history of the Quaker faith in England and North America before Nixon’s grandparents even enter the picture. And this was published in 1990! The chances all of this context would make the final cut today: zero.

    Personally, I love it, but then I’m a sucker for California history and the sociology of religion among other things.

    But more on point: I don’t know about you, but I get a feeling the resistance to “grand narrative” is a way of fending off any possible challenge to the dreary hegemony of “the market” and the notion that present social arrangements are anything other than the product of natural right. In my experience, the people instinctively hostile to broad critiques or grand vision are the gatekeepers — in other words, people guarding their privileged position. It’s certainly not a case of lack of demand.

  14. EmilianoZ

    I think there were some disparaging remarks directed at Kahneman’s “Thinking fast and slow”. I cant be bothered to read that book so I don’t know if it’s deserved.

    But, didn’t Ian Welsh promise us a book? An ambitious, all-encompassing book about society. Well, when it’s out, we’ll see how it measures up to the past great masters and the contemporary crop.

    I personally think hand waving generalities should be backed up by hard facts and statistics.

  15. nihil obstet

    Literary fiction suffers from the same malady. Critically respected novelists write absolutely beautiful sentences put together into utterly boring paragraphs, that quite wonderfully render the individual consciousness of daily reality. I think it’s supposed to make me see the underlying reality of the daily, but it just reminds me of the trap of the trivial. Fortunately, fiction has its genres, in which you still get stories.

    The classics with grasp and reach are those whose authors have something to say about man and society. Most non-fiction today is illustrative rather than explanatory. Our current fetish for faux objectivity leads the authors to suppress a clear sense of their own ideology, so all they can do is offer illustrations of the unspoken point. That is indeed narrowing.

  16. steeleweed

    I think part of the problem is the lack of good education. You are quite correct that we are never taught how to think. Readers need to bring something to to table for the author-reader communication to occur. Ignorant readers only understand mental pablum, so bad writers get away with writing it. And the lack of a wide view, btw, is not limited to non-fiction.

  17. Chuck Mire

    I recommend reading “The End of Faith” and “Letter To A Christian Nation” – both by Sam Harris.

  18. V. Arnold

    @ Steeleweed

    Bingo! The crux of the problem.
    An absolutely devastating history of U.S. education in an audio book, “An Intimate Investigation into The Prison of Modern Schooling”;

    A must read/listen to really understand the present.
    Fortunately, I mostly escaped…

  19. Monster from the Id

    Sam Harris?

    Uh, I’ll admit I’m just an ignorant God-bothering redneck, but I reckon I need any kind of moral lessons from a defender of torture like I need diction lessons from Elmer Fudd. 😛

  20. Adorno

    @marc sobel: I concur on The Reactionary Mind being brilliant (and of suitable breadth for its subject). I’ll have to check out the others on your list, starting with The Box.

  21. EmilianoZ

    The French have a saying: “nul n’est prophete dans son pays.” Familiarity breeds contempt.

    Cezanne and Zola were classmates in primary or middle school. Zola always considered Cezanne a failed painter. He suggested as much in his book “L’Oeuvre” which is a thinly veiled portrait of Cezanne. Upon reading the book Cezanne broke his friendship with Zola. The first museum to buy a Cezanne was German. In France he was always considered an uncouth eccentric with a thick provencal accent. And look now, Cezanne is universally recognized as one of if not the greatest painters of the 19th century, having ushered modernity almost singlehandedly.

    Time like geography is a great eraser of familiarity. When future generations rediscover say Malcolm Gladwell, knowing nothing about the man, they will be astonished. They will say he was way ahead of his time. He was to us what Voltaire and Rousseau were to the 18th century.

    Everything is always under reevaluation. For a long time Bach was forgotten.

  22. Chuck Mire

    A much stronger argument than that presented by Sam Harris is “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins. He takes no prisoners…

    Of course, one has to be a free thinker before daring to read either of these authors’ books. If one is totally indoctrinated into religion, they will not even attempt to read these books before passing judgement.

  23. jcapan

    On the one hand, we can point to a wonderful author like Jared Diamond managing to break through, OTOH we can lament that such writers are increasingly rare interlopers in an industry geared towards churning out market-friendly bromides. As others have observed, equally true of journalism, literary fiction and films, not to mention the research that gets funding in the world’s best universities. The rot is pervasive in every single field–it eats everything.

    For me, the eye opener was encountering British literature in my 30s (beyond the ltd. canon embraced by American universities). Having exhaustively studied and frankly loved American fiction (especially the Lost Generation), it suddenly looked parochial and utterly depoliticized compared to the great British authors.

    Likewise, this (eschewing politics) seems the gatekeeper to mainstream filmmaking or TV programming. Which is why I watch almost exclusively European or Asian cinema/TV.

  24. Monster from the Id

    I tried Chuck’s way for about nine years (roughly ages 15-24); it didn’t work for me. (For reference, I have nearly completed 52 orbits around Old Sol.)

    May he find peace and happiness on his chosen path.

  25. Monster from the Id

    First a defender of torture, then a sexual harasser?

    Y’know, the first thing you need to do when you find yourself in a hole is stop digging… :mrgreen:

  26. V. Arnold

    @ Adam Eran
    March 7, 2015

    Here’s a link to a free audio book by David Graeber;,_The_First_5000_Years

    An outstanding listen. It’s just too bloody expensive to get books mailed to the other side of the world.

  27. DMC

    Harris and Dawkins? “Reductionism for fun and profit”. They discover that Sturgeon’s Law applies to religion and ignore the other 5%. They announce the obvious in terms of the outrageous and ignore anything that doesn’t support their thesis. If you aren’t going to be a humanist, what good is it being an atheist?

  28. JustPlainDave

    The problem with non-fiction today is that it hasn’t gone through the crucible of remaining in print. The biggest single chunk of this is the selection bias inherent in that process. Probably second is the [older] human impulse towards “all ya damn kids get off my lawn”.

  29. “…lots of profiles of the people affected by whatever they’re writing about;” Yes, and therein lies the problem, causing your other complaint os, “there is very little wide-ranging intellectual context.”

    You see it most obviously in the “news” media. When the reporter says, “a snowstorm hit the Boston area,” you can bet that the next sentence will begin, “Mary Smith lives in South Boston…,” and we will hear all about Mary Smith. Viewers/readers, it seems, cannot “relate” to something as massive and impersonal as a snowstorm, the media must present something on a scale to which the viewer/reader can “relate,” that being a person who was affected by the event or issue.

    The question is, has the reading/viewing public been turned into a herd of idiots by the media, or is the media responding to the trend of the public having become a herd of idiots?

  30. alyosha

    So true. The flip side of this phenomena is the decline of reading in general. Chris Hedges writes about the move away from a print based culture to one based on images. Anyone fifty and up has lived through this transition.

    And the whole thing about peppering up a work with fuzzy feelings and anecdotes – it’s more of a hook to keep an easily distracted reader’s attention. It’s the elevation of feelings – which change and are like the weather, one more thing to be distracted by – above the central focus of the work.

  31. Mel

    Thinking Fast and Slow? I enjoyed it. It’s a useful survey of the nature of Rational thinking and the other kind of thinking. Can add a little fiber to John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards. The book I’m reading now, Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary covers similar territory starting from a neurological background. It dovetails with Kahnemann’s book in an imperfect and very interesting way. It relates to this essay by its discussion of context, the precise nature of context and the effects when it’s included in or excluded from thinking.
    Both Kahnemann’s and McGilchrist’s books were brought to me by the late lamented Big Ideas series on TVO. It was very important to me while it ran. May have gone by natural causes though; it leaned way too much on the Perimeter Institute at the end. A guy only needs so many Kuhnian revolutions in a month. If talks on political and social issues weren’t to be had, then folding up was probably the best response.

  32. alyosha

    Part of this – the decline in reading, and its concomitant, the decline of non-fiction – is a culture-wide inability or unwillingness to concentrate one’s attention. Concentration is something that has to be developed and cultivated. Notwithstanding some great recent works of non-fiction others cited upthread, the decline of reading has a lot to do with how people in general are unable to concentrate relative to their forebears.

    The enemy of concentration is distraction. The quantity of distractions, the rate at which they appear, and their attractiveness – have all increased by orders of magnitude over the last few decades. Simply watch a kid playing with an electronic toy – way more engaging than anything a fifty year old had available during their childhood. Or the internet – which I sometimes call hyper-television – in that it offers millions of “channels” – relative to the three half-duplex channels the average kid had in the 1960s. McLuhan was more right than anybody realized, with his “medium is the massage” idea.

    Concentration is a muscle that can be developed. The Buddhists laid out the plan for this centuries ago – it’s a key pre-requisite for Buddhist meditation. I recently had to study for a technical interview, and discovered that my powers of concentration – at their peak in my twenties, when I was in a college environment, with few worries or distractions – could be recovered, simply with practice.

  33. EmilianoZ

    The current crop of books, high on “human interest”, low on context, gives current readers exactly what they want. I know many people who have failed to finish Piketty’s Capital because it is very low on personal anecdotes. If Michael Lewis had written Capital, he would have centered it around a few well-chosen characters, maybe a rich guy with no income from wages but with a lot of assets, a poor guy with wage income but no assets, etc. Lewis would have said the exact same thing but with a few interesting, well-sketched characters. And the book would have been read.

    That is not to say that Piketty’s book is high on context (disclosure: I have not read it). Yves Smith seems to dislike the book because she thinks the framework is implicitly neoliberal.

  34. Qqvl

    Re: Sam Harris, he’s basically defending a U.S. foreign policy designed principally to force Western Christendom’s civilization onto the Confucian world on the basis that it protects the Confucian world from Islam.

    It’s comparable to defending Hitler’s invasion of France and the Low Countries on the basis that it puts him in a better position to protect British civilization from the menace of Falangism.

  35. Cubenesis

    Worldviews dissipated with the birth of television and all its iterations today.

  36. Monster from the Id

    Someone should tell Harris that the Chinese love pork and booze too much for Islam ever to take root there. Likewise, the Japanese love their sake. :mrgreen:

  37. Mickey M

    As an ordinary citizen (note how that term has fallen into disuse), I’ve read dozens of economics books for fun as well as for enlightenment. If I were to weigh the two Jacobs books versus all the others, Jane’s would win easily. If our economists and politicians had heeded her, perhaps we would not be in the mess we are today.

  38. Qqvl

    Harris isn’t really worried about Islam taking root in China and Japan, just as that hypothetical Hitler apologist most assuredly isn’t really worried about totalitarian Catholicism taking root in England and Scotland.

  39. Kia

    The lightweight books you describe are scarcely books at all. They are pitches. They are moving a product–and the product is an idea with a very narrow definition: something you can pitch. Now you can pitch a lot of things that are not just pitch–but the pitch is now so powerful as an end in itself that a book can be nothing but a pitch. “Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul” or whatever. Partly it’s a numbers game, encouraging people to see themselves as these mass-market-inspired cardboard cutouts and then helpfully supplying them with substance-as-accessory.

    The weird thing about the pitch literature is there is no repose, no rest, no reflection in it. It is always sending you off somewhere else. It doesn’t really engage your imagination except in the crudest simplest way, just enough for you to get the pitch and go do whatever it is urging you to do.

    I don’t know if the rubbish books of earlier eras had quite exactly the same faults, but bad books tend to sift out over time. This can give the impression that in the past there were no (or fewer) bad books. But of course there were, though not necessarily bad in the same way. Edward Young’s long poem “Night Thoughts” was taken very seriously in its day by a lot of people who ought to have known better. It is really pretty bad. But reading it two hundred years later I could see why even quite reasonable people might have thought it was better than it was.

    The bad old books end up in thrift shops and in the bins outside used bookstores, and are continually replaced by new bad books. .

    But the good books are all still there. One copy of Montaigne’s Essays can teach you more about management than the entire business section of any airport bookstore. Also if you want a worldview, well, Chekhov had a worldview, but to get it you have to read all his short stories, running to a dozen volumes. You have to live in the Chekhov universe for a while, because all the interesting worldviews are not packaged ideas that you can pitch but something that sort of casts its light over the whole field of experience.

    One thing that happened in the 20th century was the subdivision of literature. Novels used to do a lot of the things that are now only permitted to nonfiction and only barely tolerated there. You can lift whole miniature essays of social commentary from writers like George Eliot or Anthony Trollope or Dickens, on such a wide range of subjects that you feel it’s possible for the novel to to do anything. Their readers expected it.

    Or someone like Laurence Sterne, writing the world’s longest running gag as, among other things, a critique of the early Enlightenment–and a very astute critique, at that.

    But this kind of reading demands active attention. Also it is sort of made for longer relationships with authors. I mean, do you “get” Anna Karenina the first time you read it, or the 10th time? This attention is a skill you get by practice; if you don’t practice it you don’t get it.

  40. ProNewerDeal

    Ian said: ” Most books today should have been 10,000 word magazine articles.”

    Forgive my ignorance, but it the approximate median word count & page count of nonfiction books published say since 2000?

    I’d like to get a sense of what the Verbal Masturbation Multiplier (VMM) is, say 5? A 50kword book that should’ve been the 10kword article?

  41. ProNewerDeal

    Ian & commenters,

    Perhaps you could share a list of good nonfiction books you recommend, either on your blog or a website designed for that purpose like goodreads? I’d be interested in reading such a list, as a source of good books to read.


  42. Jessica

    In no particular order
    “Debt the First 5000 Years” by David Graeber
    “Society of the Spectacle” by Guy Debord (Not so coherently organized but way, way ahead of its time. The greatest flowering of French social intellectuals just before corporatization Borged the intelligentsia. The owl of Minerva flies only at twilight.)
    “The Populist Movement” by Lawrence Goodwyn (Detailed account of just how a movement from below came to be and how it was deflected)
    “Oligarchy” by Jeffrey Winters (Great analysis of power)
    “The Utopia of Rules” by David Graeber
    “The Art of Not Being Governed” by James Scott (History of Southeast Asia through the eyes of the people who chose to _not_ be part of the dominant slave states)
    The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson and the first half or so of Anathem by Neal Stephenson are both fiction but the former has large amounts of sociological science fiction and the latter is a fascinating exploration of the relationship between knowledge folks and ordinary folks
    “Karl Marx: a Nineteenth Century Life” by Jonathan Sperber. (One of the earlier people to get a glimpse of what became possible for humanity with the Industrial Revolution (and which are not any much closer to even now) and how he wrestled with how to create the agent to make the necessary change)
    {/Interjection: The notion that the pain and suffering our oligarchs and other elites cause will create the raw material that we can transform into the agent of change is an idea we had best get over. The agent of change must be created out of more or less thin air, driven only by a connection with our deep potential as humans. /End Interjection}
    “The Beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch

  43. I also recommend David Graeber’s “Debt: The First Five Thousand Years.” and his “Revolutions in Reverse” which is available on line. In “Revolutions…” he writes about how it’s hard for an American to be taken seriously as a philosopher. Seems that “ideas” still should come out of France and Italy. That ignores a good part of the world…um…like most of it. His ideas are grounded in real behavior and not “theories” like the muddle that is some made up discipline called “economics” or “political science” (oxymoron).
    For a history on 20th Century Russia I recommend Von Bremzen’s “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing.” Again, it is from a more anthropological point of view i.e. how Russians used food and cooked in different eras rather than another boring book about political leaders.
    Having said that, anything by Stephen Kinzer is worth reading. His latest “The Brothers” absolutely puts the Dulles brothers in the context of their Calvinist upbringing. John Foster Dulles found Germany, Japan, and Italy to be “dynamic” in their foreign policy instead of “static” which was merely defensive. He would, no doubt, see Russia as static for having a primarily defensive foreign policy. William O. Douglas disagreed with him and felt that the U.S. should let other peoples figure it out for themselves. Let them work out their own problems rather than impose our ways on them. So we have been following Dulles not Douglas in our humanitarian interventionism. And therein lies the troubles. There are other ideas out there, but they no longer get air time or much time in schools and the halls of power. We instead have group think and conventional wisdom. I now identify myself, when asked, as the “enemy of conventional wisdom”.
    Best course that I had in graduate school was “Towards an Aesthetic in Theater” by Professor Edgar Bergwin. We had to study classical styles art, architecture and literature and then come up with our own unique way of approaching directing.
    Must go back to work.

  44. Paul

    I have been enjoying Francis Fukuyama’s two volumes on the Origins of Political Order. I would also add a third vote for Corey Robin’s ‘The Reactionary Mind’ and also his ‘Fear: The history of a Political Idea’.

  45. There must be millions of non-fiction books available in print today in English. How can anybody talk about trends like these – “too touchy feely now” or “the high point was 40 years ago” – from a population that large? Do you really think the New York Times bestseller list is an unbiased, random sample from that vast population? And what about your own, individual sampling – is that in any way representative of the books currently available for me to read?

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